I’m writing to respond to Matthew Sitman’s alarm about how the U.S. bishops prioritized the issue of abortion at their annual meeting this November in Baltimore (“Preeminent?” December). After a lengthy debate, by majority vote the bishops excluded some of Pope Francis’s pronouncements on a comprehensive position of life issues and stated, “the threat of abortion is our preeminent priority.” This statement was then included in the USCCB’s updated election guide Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. A closer reading shows that Sitman’s alarm is overstated.
First, the bishops left untouched the other parts of their 2015 guide that require Catholic voters to consider other intrinsically evil issues, such as racism, euthanasia, genocide, torture, and treating the poor as disposable (Paragraphs 22 and 23), as well as other “compelling and serious threats to human life, such as global climate change, the death penalty, immigration reform, and others” (Paragraph 29). The U.S. bishops reiterate, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support” (Paragraph 42). Had the bishops wanted to diminish the pope’s concern over the other life issues, they would have done so. Instead, they wrote that Catholic voters should “apply a consistent moral framework to issues facing the nation and world” (Page 1 of the guide’s Introductory Note). These words are really a restatement of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s teaching on “a consistent ethic of life.” Second, their concern that abortion should be a preeminent priority is nothing new. The bishops stated as much in their 2015 version of the election guide (Summary of Part II).
Three other points on the abortion issue presented in the bishops’ election guide suggest that a more moderate approach is worth considering. First, the bishops express the need for Catholic voters, when considering a candidate, to factor in “the [candidate’s] ability to influence an issue” (Paragraph 37). History has shown that since the 1973 Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court justices have failed to repeal this decision—even when the court had a majority of Republican-nominated justices. Since Roe v. Wade has become settled precedent, the president’s ability to influence the abortion issue by appointing prolife justices is minimal. Second, the bishops’ election guide allows Catholic voters to consider “incremental improvements” rather than an all-or-nothing approach on the abortion issue (Paragraph 32; and St. John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae, no. 73). Therefore, a Catholic voter could consider supporting a candidate whose prolife position is moderate, similar to the current compromise law in Catholic Ireland. Third, the bishops express the need to depolarize America’s unfortunate political divide: “Our commitment as people of faith to imitate Christ’s love and compassion should challenge us to serve as models of civil dialogue” (Paragraph 2 and Introductory Note). And at the same time as the bishops issued their recent election guide, they also announced a year-long program called Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate, which is recommended for use by dioceses and parishes. Since the abortion issue is so divisive, it would stand to reason that Catholics should be more tolerant in their approach to this and other life issues.
MATTHEW SITMAN REPLIES:
I thank Mr. Anderson for the thoughtful letter. We simply disagree about the significance of the bishops’ new letter supplementing Faithful Citizenship for the 2020 election, which specifically names abortion as the “preeminent” issue Catholics should consider when voting. In light of their decision to exclude a complete passage from Pope Francis that offered guidance on how to approach politics, which underscored that the lives of the poor or the elderly are “equally sacred” and urged Catholics to resist thinking that only one ethical issue truly “counts,” my short article made clear that I thought it all was rather telling.
WHOLE AND HAPPY
I applaud Mollie Wilson O’Reilly’s article “A Harmful Doctrine” (January). The Bible seems to reference homosexuality only briefly—and only homosexuality between men. Perhaps this is the clue to a taboo rooted in ancient times that does not translate to today. If the increase of your immediate family, your tribe, your people is paramount to survival, then procreating can seem not only a vital activity, but maybe even a moral dictum. But when this practicality became wedded firmly to morality we created a problem that doesn’t need to exist. The reality is that many heterosexual couples also engage in sexual practices that are non-procreative and may be very similar to the practices of LGBTQ couples. This is because human beings, uniquely, are creative, playful, and varied in their sexual practices. And this has been true for millennia. Some cultures have been able to assess and accept the practical aspects of human coupling without hysteria (see The Spirit and the Flesh by Walter L. Williams). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice” (1654). Why can’t the church use that criterion for couples whose biology is also not naturally procreative? We would do more good as a church by helping all individuals and couples develop relationships that are faithful, generous, and mutually respectful. As a church we should be strengthening and supporting all families, as that is where whole and happy people are formed.
Mary Lu Callahan
Iowa City, Iowa
A CANDLE IN THE DARK
Over the years I have always been in awe of the wisdom and reasoning Cathleen Kaveny lends to the many topics she has written about—the abortion issue as a primary guide for Catholic voters, refusing Communion to lawmakers who back present abortion rights, how to communicate with people who disagree with us without vilifying them for their opinions (“Bridge Burners,” December). If only the general population could open their minds and consider these topics the way she does.
In the several different parishes where I worship both in the Northeast and Florida, I’ve experienced the divisiveness of the flock. In one parish a priest preaches so beautifully on the love and mercy of Jesus, while in another I heard a shocker of a sermon on our duty to rebuke our family members or friends who are gay and tell them “of their sin.” (Almost walked out on that one.) In one parish, we are encouraged to follow Pope Francis’s exhortation to care for the earth, but in another a secret letter was passed around suggesting that Pope Francis is the “Frankenpope,” leading all Catholicism astray.
So when I read Ms. Kaveny, I see a candle in the dark, I’m encouraged to stay and pray. I can only hope her wisdom reaches those who need to hear it—or better yet, penetrates the hard heads and hard hearts of those culture warriors who defend their beliefs as absolute truth.